Chapter 26: The Quiet Afternoon
Perhaps middle-aged people might discern Nature’s real intentions in the matter of pain if they would examine a boy’s punishments and sorrows, for he prolongs neither beyond their actual duration. With a boy, trouble must be of Homeric dimensions to last overnight. To him, every next day is really a new day. Thus, Penrod woke, next morning, with neither the unspared rod, nor Mr. Kinosling in his mind. Tar, itself, so far as his consideration of it went, might have been an undiscovered substance. His mood was cheerful and mercantile; some process having worked mysteriously within him, during the night, to the result that his first waking thought was of profits connected with the sale of old iron–or perhaps a ragman had passed the house, just before he woke.
By ten o’clock he had formed a partnership with the indeed amiable Sam, and the firm of Schofield and Williams plunged headlong into commerce. Heavy dealings in rags, paper, old iron and lead gave the firm a balance of twenty-two cents on the evening of the third day; but a venture in glassware, following, proved disappointing on account of the scepticism of all the druggists in that part of town, even after seven laborious hours had been spent in cleansing a wheelbarrow-load of old medicine bottles with hydrant water and ashes. Likewise, the partners were disheartened by their failure to dispose of a crop of “greens,” although they had uprooted specimens of that decorative and unappreciated flower, the dandelion, with such persistence and energy that the Schofields’ and Williams’ lawns looked curiously haggard for the rest of that summer.
The fit passed: business languished; became extinct. The dog-days had set in.
One August afternoon was so hot that even boys sought indoor shade. In the dimness of the vacant carriage-house of the stable, lounged Masters Penrod Schofield, Samuel Williams, Maurice Levy, Georgie Bassett, and Herman. They sat still and talked. It is a hot day, in rare truth, when boys devote themselves principally to conversation, and this day was that hot.
Their elders should beware such days. Peril hovers near when the fierceness of weather forces inaction and boys in groups are quiet. The more closely volcanoes, Western rivers, nitroglycerin, and boys are pent, the deadlier is their action at the point of outbreak. Thus, parents and guardians should look for outrages of the most singular violence and of the most peculiar nature during the confining weather of February and August.
The thing which befell upon this broiling afternoon began to brew and stew peacefully enough. All was innocence and languor; no one could have foretold the eruption.
They were upon their great theme: “When I get to be a man!” Being human, though boys, they considered their present estate too commonplace to be dwelt upon. So, when the old men gather, they say: “When I was a boy!” It really is the land of nowadays that we never discover.
“When I’m a man,” said Sam Williams, “I’m goin’ to hire me a couple of waiters to swing me in a hammock and keep pourin’ ice-water on me all day out o’ those waterin’-cans they sprinkle flowers from. I’ll hire you for one of ’em, Herman.”
“No; you ain’ goin’ to,” said Herman promptly. “You ain’ no flowuh. But nev’ min’ nat, anyway. Ain’ nobody goin’ haih me whens I’m a man. Goin’ be my own boss. I’m go’ be a rai’road man!”
“You mean like a superintendent, or sumpthing like that, and sell tickets?” asked Penrod.
“Sup’in–nev’ min’ nat! Sell ticket? No suh! Go’ be a po’tuh! My uncle a po’tuh right now. Solid gole buttons–oh, oh!”
“Generals get a lot more buttons than porters,” said Penrod. “Generals—-”
“Po’tuhs make the bes’ l’vin’,” Herman interrupted. “My uncle spen’ mo’ money ‘n any white man n’is town.”
“Well, I rather be a general,” said Penrod, “or a senator, or sumpthing like that.”
“Senators live in Warshington,” Maurice Levy contributed the information. “I been there. Warshington ain’t so much; Niag’ra Falls is a hundred times as good as Warshington. So’s ‘Tlantic City, I was there, too. I been everywhere there is. I—-”
“Well, anyway,” said Sam Williams, raising his voice in order to obtain the floor, “anyway, I’m goin’ to lay in a hammock all day, and have ice-water sprinkled on top o’ me, and I’m goin’ to lay there all night, too, and the next day. I’m goin’ to lay there a couple o’ years, maybe.”
“I bet you don’t!” exclaimed Maurice. “What’d you do in winter?”
“What you goin’ to do when it’s winter, out in a hammock with water sprinkled on top o’ you all day? I bet you—-”
“I’d stay right there,” Sam declared, with strong conviction, blinking as he looked out through the open doors at the dazzling lawn and trees, trembling in the heat. “They couldn’t sprinkle too much for me!”
“It’d make icicles all over you, and—-”
“I wish it would,” said Sam. “I’d eat ’em up.”
“And it’d snow on you—-”
“Yay! I’d swaller it as fast as it’d come down. I wish I had a barrel o’ snow right now. I wish this whole barn was full of it. I wish they wasn’t anything in the whole world except just good ole snow.”
Penrod and Herman rose and went out to the hydrant, where they drank long and ardently. Sam was still talking about snow when they returned.
“No, I wouldn’t just roll in it. I’d stick it all round inside my clo’es, and fill my hat. No, I’d freeze a big pile of it all hard, and I’d roll her out flat and then I’d carry her down to some ole tailor’s and have him make me a suit out of her, and—-”
“Can’t you keep still about your ole snow?” demanded Penrod petulantly. “Makes me so thirsty I can’t keep still, and I’ve drunk so much now I bet I bust. That ole hydrant water’s mighty near hot anyway.”
“I’m goin’ to have a big store, when I grow up,” volunteered Maurice.
“Candy store?” asked Penrod.
“No, sir! I’ll have candy in it, but not to eat, so much. It’s goin’ to be a deportment store: ladies’ clothes, gentlemen’s clothes, neckties, china goods, leather goods, nice lines in woollings and lace goods—-”
“Yay! I wouldn’t give a five-for-a-cent marble for your whole store,” said Sam. “Would you, Penrod?”
“Not for ten of ’em; not for a million of ’em! I’m goin’ to have—-”
“Wait!” clamoured Maurice. “You’d be foolish, because they’d be a toy deportment in my store where they’d be a hunderd marbles! So, how much would you think your five-for-a-cent marble counts for? And when I’m keepin’ my store I’m goin’ to get married.”
“Yay!” shrieked Sam derisively. “Married! Listen!” Penrod and Herman joined in the howl of contempt.
“Certumly I’ll get married,” asserted Maurice stoutly. “I’ll get married to Marjorie Jones. She likes me awful good, and I’m her beau.”
“What makes you think so?” inquired Penrod in a cryptic voice.
“Because she’s my beau, too,” came the prompt answer. “I’m her beau because she’s my beau; I guess that’s plenty reason! I’ll get married to her as soon as I get my store running nice.”
Penrod looked upon him darkly, but, for the moment, held his peace.
“Married!” jeered Sam Williams. “Married to Marjorie Jones! You’re the only boy I ever heard say he was going to get married. I wouldn’t get married for–why, I wouldn’t for–for—-” Unable to think of any inducement the mere mention of which would not be ridiculously incommensurate, he proceeded: “I wouldn’t do it! What you want to get married for? What do married people do, except just come home tired, and worry around and kind of scold? You better not do it, M’rice; you’ll be mighty sorry.”
“Everybody gets married,” stated Maurice, holding his ground.
“I’ll bet I don’t!” Sam returned hotly. “They better catch me before they tell me I have to. Anyway, I bet nobody has to get married unless they want to.”
“They do, too,” insisted Maurice. “They gotta!”
“Who told you?”
“Look at what my own papa told me!” cried Maurice, heated with argument. “Didn’t he tell me your papa had to marry your mamma, or else he never’d got to handle a cent of her money? Certumly, people gotta marry. Everybody. You don’t know anybody over twenty years old that isn’t married–except maybe teachers.”
“Look at policemen!” shouted Sam triumphantly. ‘You don’t s’pose anybody can make policemen get married, I reckon, do you?”
“Well, policemen, maybe,” Maurice was forced to admit. “Policemen and teachers don’t, but everybody else gotta.”
“Well, I’ll be a policeman,” said Sam. “then I guess they won’t come around tellin’ me I have to get married. What you goin’ to be, Penrod?”
“Chief police,” said the laconic Penrod.
“What you?” Sam inquired of quiet Georgie Bassett.
“I am going to be,” said Georgie, consciously, “a minister.”
This announcement created a sensation so profound that it was followed by silence. Herman was the first to speak.
“You mean preachuh?” he asked incredulously. “You go’ preach?”
“Yes,” answered Georgie, looking like Saint Cecilia at the organ.
Herman was impressed. “You know all ‘at preachuh talk?”
“I’m going to learn it,” said Georgie simply.
“How loud kin you holler?” asked Herman doubtfully.
“He can’t holler at all,” Penrod interposed with scorn. “He hollers like a girl. He’s the poorest hollerer in town!”
Herman shook his head. Evidently he thought Georgie’s chance of being ordained very slender. Nevertheless, a final question put to the candidate by the expert seemed to admit one ray of hope.
“How good kin you clim a pole?”
“He can’t climb one at all,” Penrod answered for Georgie. “Over at Sam’s turning-pole you ought to see him try to—-”
“Preachers don’t have to climb poles,” Georgie said with dignity.
“Good ones do,” declared Herman. “Bes’ one ev’ I hear, he clim up an’ down same as a circus man. One n’em big ‘vivals outen whens we livin’ on a fahm, preachuh clim big pole right in a middle o’ the church, what was to hol’ roof up. He clim way high up, an’ holler: ‘Goin’ to heavum, goin’ to heavum, goin’ to heavum now. Hallelujah, praise my Lawd!’ An’ he slide down little, an’ holler: ‘Devil’s got a hol’ o’ my coat- tails; devil tryin’ to drag me down! Sinnuhs, take wawnun! Devil got a hol’ o’ my coat-tails; I’m a-goin’ to hell, oh Lawd!’ Nex’, he clim up little mo’, an’ yell an’ holler: ‘Done shuck ole devil loose; goin’ straight to heavum agin! Goin’ to heavum, goin’ to heavum, my Lawd!’ Nex’, he slide down some mo’ an’ holler, ‘Leggo my coat-tails, ole devil! Goin’ to hell agin, sinnuhs! Goin’ straight to hell, my Lawd!’ An’ he clim an’ he slide, an’ he slide, an’ he clim, an’ all time holler: ‘Now ‘m a-goin’ to heavum; now ‘m a-goin’ to hell! Goin’ to heavum, heavum, heavum, my Lawd!’ Las’ he slide all a-way down, jes’ a-squallin’ an’ a-kickin’ an’ a-rarin’ up an’ squealin’, ‘Goin’ to hell. Goin’ to hell! Ole Satum got my soul! Goin’ to hell! Goin’ to hell! Goin’ to hell, hell, hell!”
Herman possessed that extraordinary facility for vivid acting which is the great native gift of his race, and he enchained his listeners. They sat fascinated and spellbound.
“Herman, tell that again!” said Penrod, breathlessly.
Herman, nothing loath, accepted the encore and repeated the Miltonic episode, expanding it somewhat, and dwelling with a fine art upon those portions of the narrative which he perceived to be most exciting to his audience. Plainly, they thrilled less to Paradise gained than to its losing, and the dreadful climax of the descent into the Pit was the greatest treat of all.
The effect was immense and instant. Penrod sprang to his feet.
“Georgie Bassett couldn’t do that to save his life,” he declared. “I’m goin’ to be a preacher! I’d be all right for one, wouldn’t I, Herman?”
“So am I!” Sam Williams echoed loudly. “I guess I can do it if you can. I’d be better’n Penrod, wouldn’t I, Herman?”
“I am, too!” Maurice shouted. “I got a stronger voice than anybody here, and I’d like to know
The three clamoured together indistinguishably, each asserting his qualifications for the ministry according to Herman’s theory, which had been accepted by these sudden converts without question.
“Listen to me!” Maurice bellowed, proving his claim to at least the voice by drowning the others. “Maybe I can’t climb a pole so good, but who can holler louder’n this? Listen to me-e-e!”
“Shut up!” cried Penrod, irritated. “Go to heaven; go to hell!”
“Oo-o-oh!” exclaimed Georgie Bassett, profoundly shocked.
Sam and Maurice, awed by Penrod’s daring, ceased from turmoil, staring wide-eyed.
“You cursed and swore!” said Georgie.
“I did not!” cried Penrod, hotly. “That isn’t swearing.”
“You said, ‘Go to a big H’!” said Georgie.
“I did not! I said, ‘Go to heaven,’ before I said a big H. That isn’t swearing, is it, Herman? It’s almost what the preacher said, ain’t it, Herman? It ain’t swearing now, any more–not if you put ‘go to heaven’ with it, is it, Herman? You can say it all you want to, long as you say ‘go to heaven’ first, can’t you, Herman? Anybody can say it if the preacher says it, can’t they, Herman? I guess I know when I ain’t swearing, don’t I, Herman?”
Judge Herman ruled for the defendant, and Penrod was considered to have carried his point. With fine consistency, the conclave established that it was proper for the general public to “say it,” provided “go to heaven” should in all cases precede it. This prefix was pronounced a perfect disinfectant, removing all odour of impiety or insult; and, with the exception of Georgie Bassett (who maintained that the minister’s words were “going” and “gone,” not “go”), all the boys proceeded to exercise their new privilege so lavishly that they tired of it.
But there was no diminution of evangelical ardour; again were heard the clamours of dispute as to which was the best qualified for the ministry, each of the claimants appealing passionately to Herman, who, pleased but confused, appeared to be incapable of arriving at a decision.
During a pause, Georgie Bassett asserted his prior rights. “Who said it first, I’d like to know?” he demanded. “I was going to be a minister from long back of to-day, I guess. And I guess I said I was going to be a minister right to-day before any of you said anything at all. Didn’t I, Herman? You heard me, didn’t you, Herman? That’s the very thing started you talking about it, wasn’t it, Herman?”
“You’ right,” said Herman. “You the firs’ one to say it.”
Penrod, Sam, and Maurice immediately lost faith in Herman.
“What if you did say it first?” Penrod shouted. “You couldn’t be a minister if you were a hunderd years old!”
“I bet his mother wouldn’t let him be one,” said Sam. “She never lets him do anything.”
“She would, too,” retorted Georgie. “Ever since I was little, she—-”
“He’s too sissy to be a preacher!” cried Maurice. “Listen at his squeaky voice!”
“I’m going to be a better minister,” shouted Georgie, “than all three of you put together. I could do it with my left hand!”
The three laughed bitingly in chorus. They jeered, derided, scoffed, and raised an uproar which would have had its effect upon much stronger nerves than Georgie’s. For a time he contained his rising choler and chanted monotonously, over and over: “I could! I could, too! I could! I could, too!” But their tumult wore upon him, and he decided to avail himself of the recent decision whereby a big H was rendered innocuous and unprofane. Having used the expression once, he found it comforting, and substituted it for: “I could! I could, too!”
But it relieved him only temporarily. His tormentors were unaffected by it and increased their howlings, until at last Georgie lost his head altogether. Badgered beyond bearing, his eyes shining with a wild light, he broke through the besieging trio, hurling little Maurice from his path with a frantic hand.
“I’ll show you!” he cried, in this sudden frenzy. “You give me a chance, and I’ll prove it right now!”
“That’s talkin’ business!” shouted Penrod. “Everybody keep still a minute. Everybody!”
He took command of the situation at once, displaying a fine capacity for organization and system. It needed only a few minutes to set order in the place of confusion and to determine, with the full concurrence of all parties, the conditions under which Georgie Bassett was to defend his claim by undergoing what may be perhaps intelligibly defined as the Herman test. Georgie declared he could do it easily. He was in a state of great excitement and in no condition to think calmly or, probably, he would not have made the attempt at all. Certainly he was overconfident.
Chapter 27: Conclusion of the Quiet Afternoon
It was during the discussion of the details of this enterprise that Georgie’s mother, a short distance down the street, received a few female callers, who came by appointment to drink a glass of iced tea with her, and to meet the Rev. Mr. Kinosling. Mr. Kinosling was proving almost formidably interesting to the women and girls of his own and other flocks. What favour of his fellow clergymen a slight precociousness of manner and pronunciation cost him was more than balanced by the visible ecstasies of ladies. They blossomed at his touch.
He had just entered Mrs. Bassett’s front door, when the son of the house, followed by an intent and earnest company of four, opened the alley gate and came into the yard. The unconscious Mrs. Bassett was about to have her first experience of a fatal coincidence. It was her first, because she was the mother of a boy so well behaved that he had become a proverb of transcendency. Fatal coincidences were plentiful in the Schofield and Williams families, and would have been familiar to Mrs. Bassett had Georgie been permitted greater intimacy with Penrod and Sam.
Mr. Kinosling sipped his iced tea and looked about him approvingly. Seven ladies leaned forward, for it was to be seen that he meant to speak.
“This cool room is a relief,” he said, waving a graceful hand in a neatly limited gesture, which everybody’s eyes followed, his own included. “It is a relief and a retreat. The windows open, the blinds closed–that is as it should be. It is a retreat, a fastness, a bastion against the heat’s assault. For me, a quiet room–a quiet room and a book, a volume in the hand, held lightly between the fingers. A volume of poems, lines metrical and cadenced; something by a sound Victorian. We have no later poets.”
“Swinburne?” suggested Miss Beam, an eager spinster. “Swinburne, Mr. Kinosling? Ah, Swinburne!”
“Not Swinburne,” said Mr. Kinosling chastely. “No.”
That concluded all the remarks about Swinburne.
Miss Beam retired in confusion behind another lady.
“I do not observe your manly little son,” Mr. Kinosling addressed his hostess.
“He’s out playing in the yard,” Mrs. Bassett returned. “I heard his voice just now, I think.”
“Everywhere I hear wonderful report of him,” said Mr. Kinosling. “I may say that I understand boys, and I feel that he is a rare, a fine, a pure, a lofty spirit. I say spirit, for spirit is the word I hear spoken of him.”
A chorus of enthusiastic approbation affirmed the accuracy of this proclamation, and Mrs. Bassett flushed with pleasure. Georgie’s spiritual perfection was demonstrated by instances of it, related by the visitors; his piety was cited, and wonderful things he had said were quoted.
“Not all boys are pure, of fine spirit, of high mind,” said Mr. Kinosling, and continued with true feeling: “You have a neighbour, dear Mrs. Bassett, whose household I indeed really feel it quite impossible to visit until such time when better, firmer, stronger handed, more determined discipline shall prevail. I find Mr. and Mrs. Schofield and their daughter charming—-”
Three or four ladies said “Oh!” and spoke a name simultaneously. It was as if they had said, “Oh, the bubonic plague!”
“Oh! Penrod Schofield!”
“Georgie does not play with him,” said Mrs. Bassett quickly– “that is, he avoids him as much as he can without hurting Penrod’s feelings. Georgie is very sensitive to giving pain. I suppose a mother should not tell these things, and I know people who talk about their own children are dreadful bores, but it was only last Thursday night that Georgie looked up in my face so sweetly, after he had said his prayers and his little cheeks flushed, as he said: “Mamma, I think it would be right for me to go more with Penrod. I think it would make him a better boy.”
A sibilance went about the room. “Sweet! How sweet! The sweet little soul! Ah, sweet!”
“And that very afternoon,” continued Mrs. Bassett, “he had come home in a dreadful state. Penrod had thrown tar all over him.”
“Your son has a forgiving spirit!” said Mr. Kinosling with vehemence. “A too forgiving spirit, perhaps.” He set down his glass. “No more, I thank you. No more cake, I thank you. Was it not Cardinal Newman who said—-”
He was interrupted by the sounds of an altercation just outside the closed blinds of the window nearest him.
“Let him pick his tree!” It was the voice of Samuel Williams. “Didn’t we come over here to give him one of his own trees? Give him a fair show, can’t you?”
“The little lads!” Mr. Kinosling smiled. “They have their games, their outdoor sports, their pastimes. The young muscles are toughening. The sun will not harm them. They grow; they expand; they learn. They learn fair play, honour, courtesy, from one another, as pebbles grow round in the brook. They learn more from themselves than from us. They take shape, form, outline. Let them.”
“Mr. Kinosling!” Another spinster–undeterred by what had happened to Miss Beam–leaned fair forward, her face shining and ardent. “Mr. Kinosling, there’s a question I do wish to ask you.”
“My dear Miss Cosslit,” Mr. Kinosling responded, again waving his hand and watching it, “I am entirely at your disposal.”
“Was Joan of Arc,” she asked fervently, “inspired by spirits?”
He smiled indulgently. “Yes–and no,” he said. “One must give both answers. One must give the answer, yes; one must give the answer, no.”
“Oh, thank you!” said Miss Cosslit, blushing.
“She’s one of my great enthusiasms, you know.”
“And I have a question, too,” urged Mrs. Lora Rewbush, after a moment’s hasty concentration. “I’ve never been able to settle it for myself, but now—-”
“Yes?” said Mr. Kinosling encouragingly.
“Is–ah–is–oh, yes: Is Sanskrit a more difficult language than Spanish, Mr. Kinosling?”
“It depends upon the student,” replied the oracle smiling. “One must not look for linguists everywhere. In my own especial case–if one may cite one’s self as an example–I found no great, no insurmountable difficulty in mastering, in conquering either.”
“And may I ask one?” ventured Mrs. Bassett. “Do you think it is right to wear egrets?”
“There are marks of quality, of caste, of social distinction,” Mr. Kinosling began, “which must be permitted, allowed, though perhaps regulated. Social distinction, one observes, almost invariably implies spiritual distinction as well. Distinction of circumstances is accompanied by mental distinction. Distinction is hereditary; it descends from father to son, and if there is one thing more true than ‘Like father, like son,’ it is–” he bowed gallantly to Mrs. Bassett–“it is, ‘Like mother, like son.’ What these good ladies have said this afternoon of your—-”
This was the fatal instant. There smote upon all ears the voice of Georgie, painfully shrill and penetrating–fraught with protest and protracted, strain. His plain words consisted of the newly sanctioned and disinfected curse with a big H.
With an ejaculation of horror, Mrs. Bassett sprang to the window and threw open the blinds.
Georgie’s back was disclosed to the view of the tea-party. He was endeavouring to ascend a maple tree about twelve feet from the window. Embracing the trunk with arms and legs, he had managed to squirm to a point above the heads of Penrod and Herman, who stood close by, watching him earnestly–Penrod being obviously in charge of the performance. Across the yard were Sam Williams and Maurice Levy, acting as a jury on the question of voice-power, and it was to a complaint of theirs that Georgie had just replied.
“That’s right, Georgie,” said Penrod encouragingly. “They can, too, hear you. Let her go!”
“Going to heaven!” shrieked Georgie, squirming up another inch. “Going to heaven, heaven, heaven!”
His mother’s frenzied attempts to attract his attention failed utterly. Georgie was using the full power of his lungs, deafening his own ears to all other sounds. Mrs. Bassett called in vain; while the tea-party stood petrified in a cluster about the window.
“Going to heaven!” Georgie bellowed. “Going to heaven! Going to heaven, my Lord! Going to heaven, heaven, heaven!”
He tried to climb higher, but began to slip downward, his exertions causing damage to his apparel. A button flew into the air, and his knickerbockers and his waistband severed relations.
“Devil’s got my coat-tails, sinners! Old devil’s got my coat-tails!” he announced appropriately. Then he began to slide.
He relaxed his clasp of the tree and slid to the ground.
“Going to hell!” shrieked Georgie, reaching a high pitch of enthusiasm in this great climax. “Going to hell! Going to hell! I’m gone to hell, hell, hell!”
With a loud scream, Mrs. Bassett threw herself out of the window, alighting by some miracle upon her feet with ankles unsprained.
Mr. Kinosling, feeling that his presence as spiritual adviser was demanded in the yard, followed with greater dignity through the front door. At the corner of the house a small departing figure collided with him violently. It was Penrod, tactfully withdrawing from what promised to be a family scene of unusual painfulness.
Mr. Kinosling seized him by the shoulders and, giving way to emotion, shook him viciously.
“You horrible boy!” exclaimed Mr. Kinosling. “You ruffianly creature! Do you know what’s going to happen to you when you grow up? Do you realize what you’re going to be!”
With flashing eyes, the indignant boy made know his unshaken purpose. He shouted the reply: